Charlie Steeds’ The Barge People is a strikingly confident movie. The film promises mutant, cannibal fishmen and delivers on that promise in the first five minutes. The Barge People doesn’t fuck around. It’s a campy, 80's inspired slasher where the killers are fishmen, no more, no less. It doesn’t try to be elevated, doesn’t try to do anything fancy, and doesn’t try to be clever. It’s refreshing and delightful.
I won’t beat around the bush, The Barge People was one of my most anticipated movies of 2020. I really like slashers, and I LOVE mutant fishmen. A trailer has been floating around since 2018, so I was delighted to learn it got distribution.
The film follows Kat (Kate Davies-Speak) and Mark (Mark McKirdy), who go on a weekend barge holiday with Kat’s sister and her insufferable fiance. As an ignorant American, I have no idea if barges like these are a thing, but it’s an awesome setting for a horror film, affording The Barge People the opportunity to have contained Evil Dead-esque set pieces, while also travelling between locations.
The film is anchored by an excellent performance by Kate Davies-Speak, who serves as an excellent final girl. Her performance is engaging, convincing, and badass. She even gets to own some of the films most badass kills. She plays well alongside Mark McKirdy, who works as her boyfriend/fiance, and plays the role convincingly.
Other performances are more mixed, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Matt Swales’ debut performance as Ben is patently ridiculous, but it totally works, and helps cement the film as an 80's throwback. As an obnoxious douche, you love to hate him, and his inevitable demise was extremely fun. Makenna Guyler also gives an excellent performance as Jade, an angry local who’s forced to fight alongside Kat in the film’s latter half.
As they make their journey, they run into a cadre of ornery locals, giving them foreboding warnings. While other folks they meet are picked off, unknown to them. A lot of this is, essentially, filler. I don’t mean that in a bad way, mind you, it’s almost a staple of slasher films. Tension with the locals rises, and eventually, the fishmen attack. The movie quickly becomes a The Hills Have Eyes style mutant massacre, and it’s a ton of fun.
The action is intense, if a little goofy. The titular barge people attack with weapons at times, but often shed them in favor of teeth. These blood-drenched mauling scenes are great, as are the retaliations, which are fantastically over-the-top.
Now, let’s talk about fishmen. There are plenty of directions you can go. Classically, you probably think of The Creature From the Black Lagoon style fishmen. These are definitely the most common, and you see them in everything from Humanoids from the Deep to The Shape of Water. These tend to be, for lack of a better term, rapey fishmen. This, of course, is reductive, but there’s plenty of commentary on Black Lagoon and Shape of Water already.
Instead, I’m here to dote on mutant fishmen. Fish creatures who once were men, and have been partially transformed. Yes, other examples may be mutated humans, but I think the amount of human that remains is what makes the difference. These creatures have fangs and gills, but don’t necessarily have scales and fins.. Stuart Gordon’s Dagon is probably the best example. Slimy half-human creatures people a spanish island village. It’s great. Of course, it’s an adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” which describes a town that’s interbred with traditional fishmen. Sergio Martino’s Island of the Fishmen (Screamers in the US) probably also counts.
Between 2017’s Cold Skin and The Barge People, there’s been a resurgence of this style of fishman, and I couldn't be happier. While fishmen that are, well, fishy, are great, nothing tickles me more than a more human creature. Without a doubt, The Barge People does them best. The film’s titular creatures, Razor, Blade, Nail, and (I think) Jackknife look amazing. Each has a different degree of mutation, from fish-forward, to melty, to rat-like. Their motivation is twofold: hunger and sadism, and they tell us outright. Yes, these fishmen can talk.
Ultimately, for fans of old-school slashers and awesome creature effects, The Barge People is an absolute blast. It delivers exactly what it promises in a delightful fashion. If anything I’ve mentioned sounds interesting, I'd highly recommend checking it out.
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